"If there has ever been a political issue that's worth standing… (Eve Edelheit / Tampa Bay…)
PITTSBURGH — In a hotel conference room overlooking this city's downtown, the leaders of one of the nation's largest conservative advocacy groups outlined a plan to cripple President Obama's healthcare law.
With funding for government operations set to run out at the end of this month, Heritage Action, part of a coalition of conservative lawmakers and outside groups, wants Republicans to refuse to vote for a law that would authorize spending unless it also eliminates money for the healthcare law, a move that would hobble the Obama administration's efforts to launch Web-based insurance marketplaces Oct. 1.
"This is the time to fight," said Jim DeMint, a former South Carolina senator who is president of the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank allied with Heritage Action. "If there has ever been a political issue that's worth standing up and fighting and taking a risk for, this is the time to do it."
The Heritage event, which drew about 700 conservative activists, was aimed not at Obama or Democrats but at the area's six-term Republican Rep. Tim Murphy, who was not among the 80 House Republicans to sign a letter urging Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) to embrace the strategy. Boehner could bring the issue to the House floor for a vote as soon as Thursday.
Murphy, a psychologist who has focused on health policy, would seem an unlikely target. On that same muggy August night, he was about 30 miles away in the council chambers of the little city of Washington, Pa., warning government officials and business leaders about the 2010 healthcare law.
In a slide-show presentation, he noted that elements of the law were being delayed by the administration and said rates would shoot up in some states. "The truth is, the government isn't ready," he said.
Murphy has voted with his party many times this year to undercut or repeal the Affordable Care Act and has backed legislation to strip its funding. As chairman of the energy and commerce subcommittee on investigations and oversight, he's called numerous hearings on the law, including one in July on the administration's decision to delay the mandate that certain employers provide insurance for their workers or pay a fee.
But to some in the conservative movement, that's not enough.
"We are in a war against people who fundamentally have a different view of government.... There's no compromise in that," Mike Needham, chief executive of Heritage Action, said at the town hall, one of nine it held in the districts of Republican lawmakers who have not backed their effort.
On Tuesday, conservative leaders will carry that message to the Capitol at an "Exempt America from Obamacare" rally to pressure Republicans on the first full day of action in Congress, which had been on a lengthy summer break. Among the headliners is Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), a champion of the strategy who also headlined Heritage's second stop in Dallas and led his own events in strategic locations such as New Hampshire, the state that holds the first presidential primary.
In a conference call with rank-and-file members last month, Boehner did not address the defund effort, but promised that the Republican majority would "keep the pressure on the president and Senate to act on the delay bills that passed the House."
In a memo to Republicans sent Friday, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) likewise pledged, "We will continue to pursue the strategy of systematically derailing this train wreck and replacing it."
Murphy, in an interview, emphasized his opposition to the healthcare law but said the barriers to its repeal were not with Republicans in the House, but rather with Senate Democrats. "I've signed on to co-sponsor a bill to defund this. The House has taken 40 different actions on this. I'm waiting for the Senate to act."
The House Republican leadership had steered away from a high-stakes gamble that would risk a government shutdown, wary of political fallout for the party. But they may have little choice in the face of the determined right flank. Leaders were preparing to present an alternate proposal to the rank-and-file Tuesday that could meet some of the conservatives' goals. If passed by the House, the legislation could force the Senate to vote on defunding the healthcare law.
That strategy, though, was quickly criticized by a leading independent group, the Club for Growth, which advocates a smaller federal government. Conservative groups such as the club say they have had enough of the "symbolic votes" the House has taken all year and see the spending resolution as their best leverage yet to force Democrats to act.
"When it comes time where they really can do something, are they willing to take a stand?" asked Chris Chocola, a former Indiana congressman who leads the Club for Growth. "Our point is: Just do what you say you're for. Take the risk of leadership."
Senate Republican leaders are also feeling pressure.